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John Henry Talks Stadiums and Player Sales

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john henry liverpool
"This is a club with a history in European competition and people throughout the world—at least our supporters—yearn for European nights. That’s our first goal."

Since arriving at Liverpool, John Henry and the rest of the Fenway Sports Group team have hardly put a foot wrong, immersing themselves in the club's history, bringing back a legend and giving him the support he needed to turn things around, and showing a willingness to invest in the playing staff in a way that hasn't been seen at the club in the Premier League era. Henry has also shown a willingness—at times even an eagerness—to engage with the fans, both immediately through at times cheeky use of his Twitter account and with local supporter's groups, and at a remove through occasional interviews with the press. The latter, at least, hasn't always sat as well with the fans as some of his other actions since joining the club, as at times that willingness to engage the media can seem as though it goes against the long held belief that the club's owners should simply sign the cheques and stay out of the limelight.

Still, in a world of Sky Sports and TalkSport—not to mention Twitter—and a global fanbase with an insatiable desire to be kept informed, there is a constant void that exists to be filled in a way that just wasn't the case in the club's glory days. Right or wrong, Henry's occasional public commenting is quite nearly unavoidable in the modern landscape, something even those who lament the reality tend to accept, and so at the end of the day the important question becomes how the club is represented when Henry does speak—and how he uses the various forums he has access to to inform and reassure those still a touch nervous after being burnt badly by the club's last set of owners.

Most recently, Henry talked to the Telegraph, touching on issues as diverse as the club's goals for the season and his recent trip to Munich on a fact finding mission to Bayern's Allianz Arena, perhaps the single most impressive club stadium built in the past decade. He also sets out the club on the high road, contrasting Alex Ferguson's recent tirade against the FA and its officials—a rant seemingly entirely separated from reality wherein the Manchester United manager claimed those who oversee the Premier League treat his club like shit.

The referees impress me. Football officiating is so subjective—much more subjective than any other sport. But the more I watch—and I watch too many matches—the more impressed I am with referees.

It’s impossible to get every call correct because so many of the calls are highly subjective. We have slow motion cameras looking from various angles but a referee is on the move and only has one angle. The most amazing thing to me is how accurate linesmen are on offsides.

It's hard to quite tell if Henry's words are subtle PR, or if it perhaps simply reflects a dedicated stat guru's surprise that anything based as heavily on subjective split-second decisions as officiating in football could be anything but laughably poor.

He also takes the time to talk about some of the general concepts behind Moneyball as FSG see it. Moneyball, of course, is a word that's quickly gone from intriguing to annoying as supposed experts spout daily wisdom about what the club must do to uphold the tenants of a system Henry and FSG have never applied dogmatically to their other interests. At best it often seems regurgitated wisdom most closely tied to Billy Beane and the Oakland As, and as such would seem to have little or no application when it comes to figuring out how Henry and his team will approach Liverpool Football Club—aside, perhaps, from that they do indeed place value in statistics and in the way those statistics can be used to seek out value. It's good, then, to hear something first hand on the subject from the club's owner.

The nature of markets, and that includes player acquisition markets, is such that sooner or later any set of successful formulae that provide an excess return above investment are discounted.

By that I mean that eventually what was undervalued becomes more valued—sometimes to the point of being over-valued. It’s just a matter of how stubborn executives are with regard to preferring subjectivity over objectivity. At one point only Boston, Oakland and the Yankees placed a very high value on On Base Percentage and we were heavily criticised as stat geeks.

Then we won two World Series and now virtually all 30 clubs believe in the power of baseball’s hidden statistics. So with a limited payroll it’s become very difficult for Oakland to compete despite having some of the most brilliant people in baseball there.

They're clearly stats geeks at FSG, and the acquisition of multiple midfielders all amongst last season's top ten chance creators clearly shows at least one stat they value in football. But throughout the interview, Henry makes it clear that the primary goal over the short term is improving the club, full stop. For the time being at least, the only meaningful criteria for a club trying to dig itself out of a talent deficit left by the previous owners is whether any potential transfer dealing improves the squad's ability to compete—and compete in depth—or not, with the club having absolutely zero interest at present of selling off assets with potential value to the on-field product in order to make a few more pounds out of the exchange.

For a number of years players of quality were being sold and players of lesser quality were being purchased. The club wasn’t being run by people with the kind of discipline it takes to be successful over the long-term. It’s odd to be criticised by some who think we are over-spending.

The worry seemed to be that we wouldn’t spend. But we’ve been consistent, we intend to strengthen this club annually but that doesn’t mean we will deficit spend. It’s up to us to strengthen revenues. Only then will the club be strong enough to compete in Europe.

Elsewhere, he also talks about concerns over UEFA's fair play rules being upheld, as a handful of English club's appear to have signaled they won't play by said rules even while clubs in the big continental leagues do appear to be on board. In the end, though, he seems to send a clear message to the fans he knows are watching, circling back to the stadium issue after starting things off by name-checking Bayern Munich. Ticking off first groundshare as being unfeasible as the fans could never accept it, then ruling out a redeveloped Anfied thanks to the objections of local counsel, he finally moves on to the dilemma of a new ground only making sense if its development is at least partially subsidized through naming rights.

We would love to expand Anfield, but there are enough local and regulatory issues to keep that avenue stalled for years with no assurances that once begun it would bear any fruit.

If Anfield cannot be expanded a new stadium is wonderful choice. But the fact is we already have 45,000 seats. If a new stadium is constructed with 60,000 seats you’ve spent an incredible sum of money to add just 15,000 seats.

If the cost is £300m for an extra 15,000 seats, that doesn’t make any sense at all. Liverpool isn’t London, you can’t charge £1 million for a long-term club seat. And concession revenues per seat aren’t that much different at Emirates from Anfield.

That’s why the search is on currently for a naming-rights partner. And that could very well happen.

It seems likely, then, that the club's final efforts to push ahead with redevelopment have fallen on deaf ears. But as with the last time Henry hinted at news on the stadium front, it seems fairly clear the club now has a good idea of where it has to go in order to be successful. It will be a sad day if the club indeed does leave Anfield as now appears increasingly likely, but if FSG can be half as successful as Bayern were actualizing the Allianz Arena, it will be hard to argue against the end result.